Manar Moursi

"The Sea We Would Like to See," A chapter in Tokyo Totem, Co-edited by Edwin Gardner and Christiaan Fruneaux, Flick Studio, Tokyo, Japan, 2015. More on the book here:

The rough sea
Stretching out towards Sado
The Milky Way

Matsuo Basho,1689

Just like the center of a city is connected to its past and sheds a light on its history, a city’s edge is equally revealing; defining the outline of the city’s present, its growth and its relationship to its hinterlands. Tokyo’s map presents an intimidating and thick web of metro lines. This, combined with the feeling of the seemingly endless multitude at its heart, provoked a strong urge in me to etch myself into one of those bold colored lines in an attempt to reach the edge of this town.

How does this endless city end? How soft or hard are its edges?

Taking the Odayku line Westward, all the way to its last stop, Tokyo fades from dense to American dream. From glitzy scrapers to pitched-roof single family dwellings in suburbs with strip malls and amusement parks. Like a pendular movement, this exploration of the inland edges prompted me to think of Tokyo’s other boundaries: the sea and the bay on which it sits. Formerly known as Edo, which means bay entrance or estuary, Tokyo’s industry and harbor areas mostly block its seashore. Wandering the streets of the city today, one hardly see its watery edge. Even facades of buildings on the waterfront turn their back to the sea. And yet, this edge has so strongly defined the city and the country as a whole.

Surrounded by the ocean, Japan as an island, has always honored the blessing of the sea. The ocean is the bearer of bounties. But the sea is also the generator of catastrophes. In recent years, with rising sea levels, the ocean has betrayed the Japanese with tsunamis that have swallowed entire towns. Though the ocean has often played a catastrophic role, looking back, one finds an almost continuous thread of artificial island projects. From Edo times to today. Each telling a different story of the city’s relationship with the sea.

The earliest of these projects were the artificial islands that were built with the intention to defend a vulnerable Japan against Western intrusions. A series of five island fortresses, called Odaiba, were constructed in 1853 by Egawa Hidetatsu for the Tokugawa shogunate to protect Tokyo from attack by sea. Of the five fortresses, only two survived to today. What we today know as Odaiba began as landfill no.13. A vast new piece of land in the middle of the bay. In the early 90s, Tokyo governor Shunichi Suzuki made plans to redevelop the area into what he called “Tokyo Teleport Town.” It was to be a showcase for futuristic living, for a population of over 100,000. When the housing bubble burst the plan was put on hold. But in the late 1990s Odaiba’s saw a comeback as a tourist and leisure zone complete with several large hotels, shopping malls and a giant ferris wheel.

Artificial islands were not only constructed for protection and pleasure. In April 1958 an extreme solution to the land shortage of the Tokyo Metropolis was proposed by the Japan Housing Corporation (JHC). Their plan, the Kuro Kano proposal was to fill and polder the entire East side of Tokyo Bay from the Tsukiji District to the Boso peninsula. It was conceived as the ultimate solution for the exceptional urban growth Tokyo was experiencing. The proposal was met with severe criticism due to the damage it was projected to produce to the ecology.

Two months after the Kano plan was announced, architects Masato Otaka and Kiyonori Kikutake of the Metabolist Movement made their respective counter-proposals: “Neo-Tokyo Plan - City on the Sea” and “Marine City” as schemes for new marine urban habitats on floating offshore islands. Their proposals were largely accepted by the government which was seeking solutions to the dramatic growth that Japanese cities were experiencing. Creating new ‘land’ in the sea was less costly than redeveloping the inner cities.

For the Metabolists though, building floating cities in the ocean was about more than just a search for more land. Architectural historian Kenneth Frampton expands on this: “[When] the Metabolists looked to the sea as the locus of a new civilization, they looked to the one element which had always been deeply linked to the spiritual and material survival of Japan.” They felt their projects were models for the future that could be universally adopted. They were convinced that a brand new civilization would emerge once people were brave enough to reject the chaos, danger and misery of “continent civilization” and turn to the sea. Kikutake declared that “The civilization of continents was an accumulation of bloody struggles of human relations established in limited land, so it was a history of endless wars”. The Marine City, he claimed, “will be a unit of human community, not the individual life.”

While the fortress islands built during the Edo Era were created to protect and stabilize an older order, the Metabolists thought of their proposed islands as vessels heading towards a new world. Kikutake’s vision was futuristic, technocratic and romantic. In his floating city designs, the city was radically nomadic, modular and metabolic: not to be anchored at any fixed point. All or part of it was to be able to cruise to new moorings if necessary or desired. And at the end of its useful life, the floating city was to be sunk to the ocean floor where it would be re-territorialized as a reef for marine life. With science and technology as their tools, the Metabolists tried to define new relationships between nature and human beings. Land did not belong to any individual. The foremost objective was to eventually liberate the land by choosing to live on artificial islands. Land could then become public property and restore itself to its natural state.

Kikutake elaborated his vision of nomadic, organically adaptable human habitats in the sea, by building a dramatic Aquapolis as a prototype for the government’s Expo ’70 in Okinawa. It had the futuristic marine theme: The Sea we would like to See. For Kikutake, the Expo was the place to build and showcase his ideas. A 100 by 100 meter floating city block containing accommodation, a banquet hall, and offices was built in Hiroshima and then towed to Okinawa.

But the mood changed shortly after. Expo '70 was critiqued as a dystopia far removed from reality and the 1973 energy crisis exposed Japan’s reliance on imported oil. Thus, the floating cities projects were shelved and the utopian spirit lost its momentum.
In the context of a post-war Japan the Metabolist floating city solution can be read as a way of questioning Japan’s cultural identity. The Metabolists linked the ultra-modern concepts of nuclear physics and biological growth with traditional Buddhist thought on regeneration. A marriage of two visions of the world—scientific and spiritual—gave birth to a utopia whose core concepts are still applicable. Today, with rising sea levels and a desire to create flexible, modular and responsive housing solutions, the Metabolist floating city ideas seem to be in tune with the needs of our times.

To me floating cities imply a resilience and a conviction in humanity’s desire to survive even the deepest disasters and create novel solutions. Liberated from the restrictions of the land and soil (and nationalism) that we are born into, new self-built islands endow their builders with a Godly control beyond the power that architecture alone can provide. Seen from above, I see new lines drawn in the vast ocean that can overlap, interlace or be erased completely generation after generation. Defining somehow a new humanity that is resilient, but at the same time embraces more strongly the transience of things and believes always in the possibility of newness and renewal.

“The island is like a tiny star
that Space doesn't see and mutely crushes
as it grinds on fearfully ignorant...

it tries to go on blindly, on its own
self-invented course, outside the scheme
of the planets, suns and systems.” Rainer Maria Rilke


Kikutake, Kiyonori qtd in Zhongjie, Lin Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan (New York: Routledge Press, 2010), 111.

Pernice, Raffaele, “Modern Japanese Waterfront Developments - Global vs. Local”, (Ajaman: IV Ajman Urban Planning Conference, 2010), 2.